Mary Poppins Would Have Made an Excellent Dog Trainer

There are several movies that the world deems "Classics" that I have yet to see in my nearly 5 decades on this earth - some by accident (and, yes, they are on my list) and some by design (could go my whole life without seeing them).  Fortunately, my wife and I have very similar tastes in movies. I'd say, 95% of the time, we agree on which movies are must-sees and which ones are no-ways.  Last weekend, we found ourselves in that grey 5% area.  What do we do in situations like this? Compromise, of course.  She picks a movie, I pick a movie and we settle in for a double feature.  Last weekend we traded "Planet of the Apes" (my pick) for "Mary Poppins" (her pick).  At the end of the night, we both walked away with a little something that surprised us.  For me, as I watched Julie Andrews and her magical umbrella (while desperately trying to hold on to my manliness), I couldn't help but think what an awesome dog trainer Mary Poppins would have made!
 
Let me explain:
 
For those of you not familiar with the storyline of "Mary Poppins," I'll give a quick summary. The story takes place in London and revolves around the well-to-do Banks Family which consists of a traditional and stern father who is a high-up muckity muck in the finance world, a softer  and often absent mother who is trying her hand in women's politics, and 2 small children, a young boy, Michael, and his older sister, Jane. Other members of the household are all the hired-help who are there to assist in running the house like a Swiss watch. One of the hired-hands is a nanny for Michael and Jane. Because the children are so spirited and not-so-well-behaved, the Banks have trouble finding a nanny that is suitable for the job and who won't quit after the first week.
 
The persuit of the perfect nanny begins!
 
The Father, Mr. Banks, List of Nanny Requirements:
 
    A British nanny must be a general
    The future empire lies within her hands
    And so the person that we need to mold the breed
    Is a nanny who can give commands
    A British bank is run with precision
    A British home requires nothing less
    Tradition, discipline and rules must be the tools
    Without them: disorder, catastrophe, anarchy
    In short, you have a ghastly mess
 
Reading this list would make any modern day person feel a little weary to leave their loved-ones in the hands of such a strict and cold caretaker.  I think that goes for children and dogs alike.
 
The Children's, Michael and Jane, List of Nanny Requirements:
 
    Have a cheery disposition
    Play games, all sort
    Must be kind, must be witty
    Very sweet and fairly pretty
    Take us on outings, give us treats
    Sing songs, bring sweets
    Never be cross or cruel
    If you won't scold and dominate us, we will never give you cause to hate us
 
Reading this list would make any modern day person feel warm and fuzzy BUT surely with some skepticism as everyone knows that there needs to be some discipline and structure. After all, life is not all rainbows and sherbert. This nanny that Michael and Jane have carved out would surely get walked all over by any children well-behaved or not.
 
As the movie continues to unfold and Mary Poppins is on the Banks' doorstep waiting for her job interview, I was grimacing because I was certain that Walt Disney would create a nanny character that would magically be able to sing her way through any of the children's misbehavings with outstanding results. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my assumptions were totally wrong.  Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of silly songs about dancing penguins and spoons and sugar using non-existent words that tempted me to secretly reach for my iPhone as an escape. But, all-in-all, Mary Poppins had the qualities on both Mr. Banks' list as well as the children's. In short, she was a balanced nanny for the children and surely would have been a balanced dog trainer.
 
Mary Poppins was both fun and firm!
 
As I just mentioned, Mary Poppins loved to play games with the children and sing songs to make the experience of chores and have-tos more rewarding, but, at no time were these chores optional.  Out of Mary Poppin's mouth herself, she says, "I am kind, but very firm!" 
 
Mary Poppins' style was very rewarding which, in the world of dog training, is very supportive of positive reinforcement techniques. She sang songs to make the chores more fun and played games to keep the children engaged.  In the world of dog training, I have seen great results when humans mix in some games like fetch and tug-of-war while working on basic obedience skills to keep the dog more engaged. Another rewarding technique would be to offer treats when teaching the dog something new like a trick, command or to accept physical pressure or being touched.  Humans could try singing to Fido but I highly doubt a rottweiler will appreciate any rendition of Chim-Chim-inee.
 
But, that's only half of the picture. When Mary Poppins said it was time to clean up the nursery, it was mandatory.  Mary Poppins was making a statement, not a request (and, according to her, she never had to explain anything). Mary Poppins didn't say, "would you like to clean up the nursery?" or "if you clean up the nursery, I'll give you some tea and crumpets (or whatever)."  She said, "it's now time to clean up this nursery...spit-spot, children!" With dogs, there's a great way to get that kind of reliability in dog training and that is to layer in, reasonably and appropriately, some physical pressure so that when you give the command, Fido knows it's mandatory.  The popular song that Julie Andrews sings goes something like, "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down"...not "if you don't like the medicine just eat the sugar instead."  The medicine was going down, my friend, no two ways about it. When I say "Come," Fido needs to come when I call, not if and when he feels like it. To give an example in dog training, teaching a dog to accept leash pressure or body pressure is more successful if you use treats in the beginning to avoid resistance to this pressure.  Imagine this line sung to the classic melody - "Just a small bit of hot dog makes the leash pressure ok".... (not exactly a top 40 hit, but, you get the point).
 
Mary Poppin's style was also very dominant.  I know the word dominant can be unpopular in some circles but what's true is true.  From the moment Mary Poppins walked into the job interview, she was in charge.  Within minutes, she had the stern and conservative Mr. Banks eating out of her hands.  She was telling him how the job was going to go and he, within minutes, was giving over to her suggestions.  Was Mary Poppins calm? Absolutely! Was she assertive? Without question!  When Mary Poppins would take the children out for the day, it was under her direction that the children eagerly followed.  Mary Poppins was the first one out the door and lead Jane and Michael through their day.  Mary Poppins lead with determination and firm direction but always managed to keep the kids having fun and eager to follow her.
 
If Jane was a German Shepherd and Michael a Poodle, they would really appreciate having this clear direction from a leader with a kind yet firm disposition who was always in control - a singing General. She was fun when it was time to be fun and firm when they needed to shape up.
 
As someone who works with dogs 50-60 hours a week, I can tell you that the Mary Poppins' style is very effective.  She has excellent posture (and dogs are masters at body language), clear and consistent communication (a must-have for dogs) is engaging and fun (which is important for the relationship between dogs and humans and keeps the dogs eager to learn) but is also firm and a strong leader (which provides the dogs with the structure they are accustomed to having in a natural environment).
 
It is important to be fun.  I believe this to be true with employers and parents of both dogs and children.  Life should be fun;  inspiration and willingness to cooperate are born out of this type of mindset.
 
It is also just as important to be firm.  The CEO of a company will insert discipline in his organization in order to maintain a healthy profit and work environment.  A parent of a child or a dog needs be a strong leader that ensures security and confidence so the two-legged 
and four-legged children don't have to assume that responsibility for themselves.
 
Aside from the silly hats and talking umbrellas, I'd say that Mary Poppins, as a dog trainer, demonstrates  a winning combination of calm determination, loving spirit and strong leadership - and, according to her tape measure, practically perfect in every way.  
 
Now let me go turn on Planet of the Apes part 2 before my manhood and testosterone completely disappear for good.
 
-Chad Culp, Canine Behavior Consultant and Certified Dog Trainer
© Thriving Canine 2013